White Shadows

White Hibiscus

“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes

My ability to sympathise with this attitude is currently limited. The actual act of travelling from one place to the next is the evil you have to suffer in order to arrive at your destinations. Well that’s how I’m feeling at this current moment in time, anyway: The last three days have been occupied entirely by such ‘movement’. In fact, I think it’s been the longest total amount of time I’ve ever spent in assorted methods of transport over such a short space of time.

The first two days were occupied entirely by 10+ hours a day on an aptly named slow-boat up the Mekong river from the fantastic Luang Prabang. A lack of A/C and comfortable seats was not entirely welcome. The conditions were exacerbated by the motor breaking down and a conversion to a rickety tuk-tuk. This was an experience not unlike sitting on a bucking bronco whilst simultaneously showering in the reverse setting of a hoover. The sweaty, wooden snail-boat suddenly seemed like five star luxury.  A brief night was spent in the unimposing border town of Xuang Hai, followed by a further day’s journey into Thailand in a, far preferable, minibus.

Yes, the views were pretty stunning, but there's a limit to how much you can appreciate them after 20 hours of the same scene.

Yes, the views were pretty stunning, but there’s a limit to how much you can appreciate them after 20 hours of the same scene.

Sunset from the back of a Laotian tuk-tuk.

Sunset from the back of a Laotian tuk-tuk.

Today’s journey was a substantial improvement as we were able to stop off at sights en route to our final destination of Chiang Mai.

The 'Golden Triangle'. From this point in Thailand you can see the border into Myanmar on the left of the river and into Laos on the right. Historically infamous for use in the opium trade.

The ‘Golden Triangle’. From this point in Thailand you can see the border into Myanmar on the left of the river and into Laos on the right. Historically infamous for use in the opium trade.

The Golden Buddha, shining out as a welcoming beacon to the two other immediately adjacent countries.

The Golden Buddha, shining out as a welcoming beacon to the two other immediately adjacent countries.

The second and most impressive of our slight detours was ‘Wat Rong Khun’ in Chiang Rai, more commonly known to foreigners as the ‘White Temple’. Designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, the temple is unique in that it’s entirely (you guessed it) white, with mirrored glass mosaics over the structure emphasising this brilliance, which alludes to the purity of the Lord Buddha. It’s very contemporary, being built only in 1997. I’m surprised that it’s not received with more controversy due to the quite shocking nature of some of the sculpture: skulls and skeleton forms woven into the mesh of walls and an area, near the entrance, of arms reaching from the ground – perhaps representing tormented souls in purgatory.

Inside the temple is a wax-work monk that took me a good half hour to dismiss as not being a real person. There’s also a bizarre collection of modern day heroes and film characters painted onto the walls. Very strange indeed.

White temple Chiang Rai

White temple Chiang Rai

White temple Chiang Rai

White temple Chiang Rai

Surrounding the 'White temple' are, as usual, other smaller Wats and shrines. Here's a the rather beautiful base of a wishing well. Don't be fooled by the clarity, this is actually underwater.

Surrounding the ‘White temple’ are, as usual, other smaller Wats and shrines. Here’s a the rather beautiful base of a wishing well. Don’t be fooled by the clarity, this is actually underwater.

White temple Chang Rai

White temple Chang Rai

White temple Chang Rai

As ever, it’s impossible to recount the entirety of the past few days (my posts are already increasing in length by the day) So I’ll skip over the cashew nut factory and my miserable new head-cold and will leave Chiang Mai for next time.

Having said that, who knew that cashew nuts grew on trees underneath cashew ‘apples’?!

Cashew nuts

 

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Below My Feet

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

“I think the thing to do is to enjoy the ride while you’re on it.”

 – Johnny Depp

Today has served to consolidate the idea previously budding in my mind: Laos is my favourite destination from my selection that I’ve passed through on this trip through South East Asia. The beauty of the countryside is simply outstanding and the people here, in my opinion and from my experiences, are incredibly accommodating and generous.

A few of us were up before the sun this morning. We headed into the beautiful UNESCO sight of Luang Prabang town to watch the ‘giving of the alms’. This daily procession consists of the saffron-clad Buddhist monks of the local monasteries walking in their groups around the town to collect food offerings from the town’s people: the only meal they will eat all day.  It was a charming and humbling experience. Particularly touching was noticing the monks reverse the process in giving some of the food they’d received to the elderly beggars.

Giving of the alms Luang Prabang

Giving of the alms Luang Prabang

The next excursion I had my doubts about: an elephant trek with the ‘Mahout Eco Camp’.  My expectation of poorly treated animals and masses of tourists, however, was completely turned on its head. The elephants seemed at the height of health and very well loved. They’re left to roam free through the jungle throughout the day – only being called into the camp in the early morning for the rides. I asked if I could sit on the Elephants neck as opposed to a seat and was rewarded with having an elephant (called Tong Kun) all to myself! It was just me and four friends, on two other elephants – not the vast crowds I’d been dreading. I was taught by the trainer of Tong Kun how to instruct her, with ‘pai’ meaning ‘go’, for example, and then left to it! She was surprisingly obedient and, of course, utterly adorable.

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

 

 

 

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

 

 

With only one day in this beautiful town, we had no time to lose. Next stop: Kuang Si waterfalls. Despite the slight increase in the crowds, these ascending tiers of soft, milky turquoise water are not to be missed. There are also numerous areas where you can head in for a swim – lots of jumping off the waterfall opportunities to be had! The site also is home to a ‘sanctuary’ for Asiatic black bears and sun bears, rescued from highly inhumane conditions such as minuscule cages or forced ‘bear dancing’.  They’re now set up in the equivalent to a zoo-like habitation which, although still not ideal, is unarguably far preferable to their previous situations.

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

IMG_5155

Kuang Si Waterfall

We stopped at a little village on the way back into town. Naturally, we were bombarded by the local salemen...in this case, children.

We stopped at a little village on the way back into town. Naturally, we were bombarded by the local salesmen…in this case, children.

 

The final exertion for the day was climbing up the steps to the tallest peak in the town: Phu Si temple. Undoubtedly the best place to view the sunset over the Mekong River. Other delights not to be missed in this enchanting little town include the friendly and vibrant night market, full of irresistible locally crafted goods. Down a side branch of the market you can find the equivalent of a food quart, where a vegetarian all-you-can-eat Laotian buffet costs as little as a dollar. The smoothies/shakes available at stalls throughout the streets are also to die for. The perfect way to end a fantastic day.

Sunset Luang Prabang

Food at Luang Prabang night market

N.B. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnKUD_OztRE

(This would have been my preferred song for the post but it just seemed a little too obvious!)

The Importance Of Being Idle

Vang Vieng Rice Paddy, Laos

“It is important from time to time to slow down, to go away by yourself, and simply be.”
 – Eileen Caddy

I’ve become so infuriated by organised group activities and general ‘tourism’ that today I decided to break away from the gang. We arrived into Vang Vieng in the monsoon rains last night, so this morning I indulged in a lie in, which was absolutely glorious. Eventually emerging at around eleven, I donned my hiking boots for the first time since leaving home and strode out in a general ‘countryside’ direction.

Vang Vieng, being essentially a backpacker haven, is mostly known for tubing and kayaking tours. I don’t find either option remotely appealing, largely due to the fact that I’ve done both a number of times with far more freedom and with far fewer crowds. One particularly fond memory is of heading out across the French vineyards near Carcassonne, one summer, fully equipped with all of the inflatables from the pool. We floated down the river on assorted lilos and rubber rings, occasionally getting caught on the odd bit of shallow water, having a hilariously good time. In comparison, heading out with three tour guides, full instructions, routes mapped, proper equipment etc seems somewhat less spontaneous.

Exploring the local area, however, was incredibly rewarding. The general landscape out of town is absolutely breath-taking. Limestone ‘karsts’ are dotted about the place, very much like Ha Long Bay but with vividly green rice paddies replacing the ocean. You can wander out on the magical little paths through the paddies, with precarious bamboo bridges and rivers that you have to jump across (almost inevitably resulting in mud splattering all the way up your legs). Mesmerising arrays of butterflies and dragonflies are chasing and courting each other all around you and the soothing noise of the running water pouring out of bamboo structures creates the epitome of tranquillity.

Vang Vieng Rice Paddy, Laos

One of the more lacklustre of the bunch...

One of the more lacklustre of the bunch…

IMG_4884

Vang Vieng, Laos

After ambling down a dirt road for a while I decided to follow a very poorly translated signpost which pointed towards a cave “where you bath”. This took me down a tiny little path winding through banana plantations and lush wilderness which was actually a little disconcerting as there wasn’t a soul in sight and the tight turns resulted in very poor visibility. What’s more, the screeches of the crickets were quite alarming; they were exactly like that horrible sound you make when you scrape cutlery across an empty plate. Round one tight corner I spotted an incredibly bizarre snake – around a metre and a half long but so thin that it can’t have been more than a centimetre or two wide. It reared up, with some little creature in its mouth that was screaming its heart out, and darted quickly into the jungle. I’m not sure what it was exactly, but having looked online the closest I’ve come is a ‘painted bronzeback’. By this stage, my stomach was obstinately reminding me that it was lunchtime, so I decided to give up on the rather unnerving trail and head back to the open space!

A small herd of cattle, blocking the route back to the road - thankfully they were very docile!

A small herd of cattle, blocking the route back to the road – thankfully they were very docile!

Calf seeking shelter from the heat.

Calf seeking shelter from the heat.

Vang Vieng , Laos

Rambling about the place was such a fantastic opportunity to get a sneak peek into the genuine lives of the locals: families gathered in the dark of their bamboo huts around a pot of steamed rice, farmers tending the cattle and paddies, little kids splashing about in the mud whilst the fishermen work their traditional nets in the rivers, young boys proudly sporting their smart uniforms as they cycled to and from school. One boy, perched up on a tiny little branch at the top of a tree, like a sparrow, shouting out ‘sa bai dee’ (hello), jumped down and ran over to me to offer his half eaten guava, which was rather adorable. Such a shame that I was unable to communicate in any way – hello and thank-you are the extent of my Laos linguistic abilities, unsurprisingly!

Bridge across the fast-moving river.

Bridge across the fast-moving river.

Vang Vieng River

Laos fisherman

Vang Vieng road

 

Boy in tree Vang Vieng

I’m getting to grips with the local street food increasingly as time passes – the basic concept initially was just entirely foreign to me and nobody explained it, so it’s taken a while! You get the basic ‘canvas’ of the meal given to you, most often rice noodle soup, and then you’re able to choose all the flavours and seasoning yourself from the things available to you on the table – what I initially mistook for a salad is pot of fresh herbs: here it’s mint and a strange lemony tasting leaf that looks a little like basil. Then there are sauces – in this case an additional delicious thick peanut/chilli sauce, chillis, garlic, curry powder etc

The basic 'noodle soup' has morphed into varying forms in the different countries.  Here in Vang Vieng it came with a sort of dark gelatinous tofu, a side of fresh bean sprouts and topped with fried garlic.

The basic ‘noodle soup’ has morphed into varying forms in the different countries. Here in Vang Vieng it came with a sort of dark gelatinous tofu, a side of fresh bean sprouts and topped with fried garlic.

Rice Paddies, Vang Vieng, Laos

 

Going On

Frangipani flower, Laos

Dok Champa a.k.a. the frangipani – national flower of Laos & symbol of joy and sincerity.

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
 – Walt Disney

Yesterday we bade farewell to Vietnam and set off on a short flight South West to Vientiane – Capital of Laos. The difference between the two countries is not immediately distinguishable, expect perhaps that the number of motorbikes on the streets has suddenly decreased dramatically! Another slight difference is that the prices are marginally higher here, probably due to the fact that the country’s land-locked. The French influence is still prominent; Vientiane even has it’s own ‘arc de triomphe’!

Vientiane's 'arc de triomphe'

We headed out to the ‘Buddha Park’ this morning: a sculpture park crammed full of 200 Buddhist and Hindu statues. Although the park was only started in 1958 the statues create the illusion of being centuries old, giving the park a mysterious and almost chilling atmosphere!

Buddha Park, Vientiane

Buddha Park, Vientiane

water lily

Buddha Park, Vientiane

Buddha Park, Vientiane

One particularly unusual sculpture, in the form of a giant pumpkin, allows you to go inside into a kind of labyrinth with three levels representing hell, earth and heaven. You enter through the mouth of a three metre tall demon head and climb up from hell to heaven, with smaller sculptures inside the maze on each level.

Buddha Park, Vientiane

The view from 'heaven'.

The view from ‘heaven’.

Vientiane also brings back memories of Yangon due to the ‘Stupas’ throughout the city which strongly resemble the Myanmar Pagodas. Pha That Luang Stupa is generally viewed as the most important national monument in Laos.

Temple at Pha That Luang Stupa.

Temple at Pha That Luang Stupa.

I've always had a soft spot for interesting translations!

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for poor translations…

 

In terms of food, I haven't notice too much of a difference from Vietnam yet, rice and noodles obviously being the staples throughout Indochina. One thing that is apparent here that was absent beforehand is sticky rice. Here are some bizarre sticky rice 'lollypops' dipped in egg yolk and cooked on a bbq!

In terms of food, I haven’t notice too much of a difference from Vietnam yet, rice and noodles obviously being the staples throughout Indochina. One thing that is apparent here that was absent beforehand is sticky rice. Here are some bizarre sticky rice ‘lollypops’ dipped in egg yolk and cooked on a bbq!